On Time and Nature

I read an article yesterday about a man who felt that time was moving too quickly and he was getting left behind. He felt like he wanted to slow down time, to become more aware of the passing.

So he walked out into the wilderness (of Devon which, wild as it may be, is not Alaska or Africa), and found a nice place by a stream, and created a circle wide enough to encompass him and his tent, and sat down to observe time passing for 24 hours.

And time did slow down for him, as it does when you’re bored, when you’re not entertaining your mind with books or TV or internet or people or perfecting your home or your body, or working, or writing, or doing. And in that boredom, he began to become not just aware of time’s passing, but more aware of nature. Of a tree that he sat beneath – he remarked that it bothered him at first that he didn’t know how to name the tree (beech or birch or oak) and eventually just came to accept that the naming of the tree was a construct, something that humans put on the tree and not something that emerged from the tree itself. And so he accepted it just as tree.

And he got this feeling, as he watched that tree, and the trees across the stream, and the water of the stream, and the birds, that he wasn’t just watching nature, that it was watching him. That it was aware of him, and watching what he would do.

They are finding now that trees communicate with each other through the biome, the hummus on the forest floor.

I lived for a while in the Pacific Northwest where, when I got there, the trees were tall and wide and stretched to the sky. The rainforests there are silent, compared to deciduous forests where you hear birds all the time. When I was little, I didn’t like it, I felt lost and if my parents moved too far away, I worried that they were leaving me like Hansel and Gretel. The property they owned – where I later lived – was second growth; it had been mined around the turn of the century (19th to 20th) and we sometimes found huge circular saw blades. There were vast stumps, the size of witch’s cauldrons, which is what we played that they were.

When we returned, I was in high school, and huge swathes of forest on the mountain had been cut down. Unless you’ve flown over the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the Cascades, the concept of clear cutting is abstract. But when you look down and see great shaved areas on the mountains, you begin to understand the impact of our consumption on the natural world.

And it shows. We speak to nature through our saws and she speaks back. The animal patterns change, the deer move away from the clear cuts, down to the populated areas where there is more to eat, and the coyotes follow, and the mountain lions and suddenly housecats and pet dogs start disappearing, or a mountain lion stalks a jogger, and we are aware of nature once more.

On a larger scale, we speak to the earth by releasing gases into the atmosphere and she responds with water or lack thereof, with fire, with wind. The earth shakes near fracking, nature speaking back to us about how we are wounding her. Great dust clouds rumble across the southwest, the earth speaking to us about how our farming has destabilized the soil.

It’s a conversation.

At one point, my job put me in a position where I was implementing software on behalf of an IT department. I became the human representative of the software and, because I wasn’t part of IT myself, I remained human. When the implementation ended, people who were frustrated with the HelpDesk would call me and complain. Not wanting to get caught in the middle, I’d arrange for a call with the HelpDesk Manager and facilitate conversation between the two parties, de-escalating the rhetoric so that they had space to work together.

I likened it to two cavemen who were trying to communicate without words. One caveman would grunt and the other would grunt back. But they didn’t have words so they didn’t know what the other wanted, and got it wrong. So the first caveman would grunt louder and longer. That didn’t work either, so he’d tap the other caveman and, when that didn’t work, he punch him. The second caveman would step backwards, out of reach of his swing. So, to get his attention, the first would toss a rock at him. And the second caveman would step further away. The first caveman would then hurl a bigger rock. And the second one would dig a trench to keep the first one away and move further back. And pretty soon, they’re hurling spears and shooting arrows, and inventing catapults, and nuclear bombs to communicate with each other.

This feels like what we do with nature sometimes.

And what she does with us.

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